Principal, librarian, songbird

The roles played by the three Best Actress nominees at the Life! Theatre Awards show the range of the actresses

The benevolent headmistress of a convent school, a brassy woman looking for love and a shy singer with a tremendous voice - these are the characters played by the three Best Actress nominees at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards.

Los Angeles-based actress Lydia Look, who scored her first nod in the category in 2001, is up for her role as principal Agatha Mao in Checkpoint Theatre's drama The Way We Go.

Her two competitors, Frances Lee and Mina Kaye, are both debuting in this category.

Lee is up for playing Helen, an overweight librarian in Pangdemonium's take on acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute's tragicomedy Fat Pig.

Kaye's nod is also for a Pangdemonium production, as Little Voice, the young songbird who comes out of her shell, in The Rise & Fall of Little Voice, a 1992 play written by British dramatist Jim Cartwright.

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The award, among others, will be given out next Wednesday at the 15th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards ceremony, an invite-only event held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

Go to for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.

Lydia Look

Nominated for: The Way We Go (Checkpoint Theatre)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for One Bed, Three Pillows: Pillow Talk (Action Theatre, 2001)

Previous wins: None

The pint-sized but animated actress Lydia Look cruises into a photo shoot with Life!, declaring: ''I know people always say 'Oh, it's great to be nominated' and all that, but I think that's bullcrap. If I get in, I want to win.''

Look's larger-than-life personality is practically the direct opposite of Agatha Mao, a timid, kind-hearted former convent school principal, but the 42-year-old still gamely took on the role.

''I am way younger than Agatha in real life. So I knew that I had to reach for her depth of experience in living, above all else. Both my director Claire and (fellow actress) Neo Swee Lin guided me,'' says the actress, who is based in Hollywood, Los Angeles with her husband, stuntman and actor Jen Sung Outerbridge.

''The biggest self-imposed pressure for me was getting her convent school cadence, carriage and wit just right. I'm a proud Katong Convent girl and wanted to pay tribute to my teachers,'' she adds. In the United States, Look has appeared ontelevision dramas such as Bones and NCIS: Los Angeles.

This year, she will shuttle between LA and Singapore to visit her mother and to do projectshere.

She is working on 7 Letters, a collection of seven short films to celebrate the nation's 50th jubilee (her segment is directed by local film-maker Tan Pin Pin) and will act in Wild Rice's historical play about Singapore and Malaysia, Another Country, in June.On the difference between screen and stage, Look says: ''TV is solitary. You show up and do your thing. But in theatre, you get to create with your fellow cast mates and they shape your portrayal.

That's a real high for me... But I won't lie, I definitely get more excited from the wages I earn from TV and film."

 Frances Lee

Nominated for: Fat Pig (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

Plus-sized actress Frances Lee waves off any concerns about being typecast, although she has been cast once as a plump woman and once as an actual pig. On top of her nominated role as overweight librarian Helen in Fat Pig, she has also starred as Pigsy in Wild Rice's pantomime Monkey Goes West, inspired by the Chinese folk tale Journey To The West.

"I got to play very different roles in school, from a blind prophet to an operetta-singing goddess to a fierce old woman. It was refreshing to play someone who was my age," says the irrepressible 24-year-old, who practically bounces in for a photo shoot with Life!, twirling her dress and greeting her director in Fat Pig, Tracie Pang, with a shriek of delight.

One challenge she faced in playing her character in the tragicomedy about society's obsession with image was that it was hard to say goodbye to Helen's quirks after the play was over.

"If I were to distil Helen, I would say that she was just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her," she says, quoting Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999).

But the actress, who is single, is also looking forward to the year ahead. She has a role in Normal, Checkpoint Theatre's ongoing school drama by playwright Faith Ng, and she will also star as supporting character Rosemary Joseph in the revival of the Dick Lee musical Beauty World.

"It'll be a challenge as the actors in that role so far have given me huge shoes to fill... the roles I'm getting this year are very different and versatile," she notes. Previous actresses who have played Rosemary include veteran singer-actress Jacintha Abisheganaden and jazz singer Alemay Fernandez.

Lee, a recent Lasalle College of the Arts acting graduate, adds: "One thing I love about being an actor is that I never know what I'm doing next. I never thought I'd go from Helen to Pigsy. I'm constantly surprising myself and I hope to push myself further."

Mina Kaye

Nominated for: The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

Actress Mina Kaye, who is no stranger to musicals, likens her titular role in Pangdemonium's The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice to "running in a marathon".

"LV (Little Voice) is probably the most demanding character I've played - it was mentally, emotionally and physically challenging, on top of the demands on my vocals," she says, comparing it to her previous supporting roles in Dream Academy productions of Sondheim musicals such as Into The Woods, where she played Rapunzel, and Company, where she played Marta.

The 30-year-old, who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory in the United States, recalls "literally jumping out bed with excitement" at the news of her nomination.

"It was the best wake-up call ever," she says.

Kaye, who as LV had to constantly switch vocal styles to imitate 10 iconic divas ranging from Teresa Teng and Edith Piaf to Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe, took months to listen to, analyse and learn the physical movements and vocal tics of each singer.

"I was very lucky to have a year to prepare for this role. Of all the divas I studied, I have a particular respect for Judy Garland. There's a YouTube video of her singing Over The Rainbow in 1955, when her health was failing - it's absolutely heartbreaking. I was inspired by it in my own performance," she says.

Kaye, who is engaged, is also looking forward to getting back on stage in Singapore next year, although she declines to provide details.

Referring to a popular rice noodle roll snack in Singapore, she says: "I'm loving the snow here in Boston, but I miss me some legit chee cheong fun."